Jasper – The Bear*, The Park, The Riding

Rivers and I have just wrapped up week one of our two week summer holiday. We spent most of this week in Jasper National Park, which just happens to be one of my happy places. It’s where I took my sons on our first family holiday and the place I occasionally escaped to when I was in graduate school. I hadn’t been in 15 years and Rivers had never been, so I was pretty happy to be sharing it’s impressive beauty with him, and staying just on the edge of the town of Jasper in a sweet wee heritage cabin on the banks of the Athabasca River.

Jasper National Park is one of Canada’s original national parks (neighbouring Banff is the oldest) created to preserve the Rocky Mountains in Canada. Business development, and residency in the parks exist by permission of the national parks board, and there’s a nice balance of ‘things to do’ and wide open natural spaces. In the fifteen years since I’ve been to Jasper, there have been some significant changes. The town (also called Jasper) is even more touristy, which is to be expected and budgeted for – but what really alarmed me was the lack of wildlife and the disappearance of the ‘snow caps’ from the snow-capped Rocky Mountains. Global climate change – sigh. We did see elk, mountain sheep, deer, a mama bear and three cubs, and a whole lot of squirrels and chipmunks, but nothing like the herds of animals I’ve seen in Jasper at the same time of year in the past. And, no moose, caribou or mountain goats. Maybe this week we’ll see a few more animals.

The fact is, three nights in Jasper was not nearly enough time to do all the Jasper-y things we wanted to do (ride the tramway, visit Miette hot springs, hike Maligne Canyon, cruise Maligne Lake, white water raft on the Athabasca River, explore the town of Jasper, check out Jasper Park Lodge) and also check out the great mountain biking trails that the park has been actively opening up and promoting. Evan after crossing a few Jasper-y things from the list, we only got one very short and one decent cross-country ride in. We both agreed that going back for a full week is in order.

One of the things we wanted to make sure didn’t get missed on the Jasper to-do list was white water rafting. We chose Rocky Mountain River Guides, based mostly on the mention in their brochure of ‘spacious heated change rooms.’ Turns out the ‘change rooms’ were the old school bus that they drive everyone out to the river in, and are neither spacious nor heated by my definitions … and they are definitely not private. Still, I would highly recommend the company – the guides were fun, the rafts were light and small, and the organizing was smooth. As often happens in my life, I didn’t want to take the riskiest run and then was slightly disappointed with the lack of excitement. I forget sometimes how much I enjoy adventure. It seems there’s no real in-between options though – the Athabasca Falls run we took has Class II rapids and is a 2 hour paddle with lots of breaks to just float down the river. The only more robust option is Class 3 rapids on the Sunwapta River, a longer trip (3+ hours) of almost constant paddling. I want adventure, but I don’t want to work THAT hard for it. By the way, there are a lot of package deals to be had on river rafting in conjunction with other Jasper attractions – there’s no need to pay full-price if you book online.

Speaking of adventure, when we were researching the trails at Jasper, Rivers kept telling me that I would want to ride the blue trails in Jasper, and that even those would be easier than the beginner trails at home. I should have listened – the green trails in Jasper are all cross-country, minimal climb/descent, smooth packed soil, and fairly open forest. Compared to our coastal trails, there is almost no undergrowth, and the few rocks are smooth, round river rocks that are more fun than alarming. The second night we explored the trails around the cabin, and my only concern was their proximity to the Athabasca River – one wrong move, and you’d be a very cool wet. It was nice, but not really what we’d call ‘mountain biking.’

On our final morning, we finally pulled out the official map that we had gotten from the Jasper Visitor Information Centre from a very knowledgeable, friendly and helpful agent. She had x’ed out the currently closed areas, highlighted some great loops, and given us a break-down of what the trails were like. We didn’t have a lot of time, and I still wasn’t sure about the translation between beginner runs in Victoria, and beginner runs in Jasper, but we set off to explore what we could.

The Lac Beauvert Loop was lovely and scenic – we crossed two small creeks and the Athabasca River. We then followed the river bank for about two kilometres to north-east edge of Lac Beauvert, then followed the shoreline halfway around the lake. Aside from a very short descent from the parking lot in town to the river, the trail was basically level cross-country. On the return trip, however, we detoured onto an intermediate trail, and it was FUN! A steady moderate climb with a few roots and rocks turned into a flowy, open bouncing descent. Knowing now that that’s what is considered Intermediate in the area, we will definitely be riding Intermediate and Advanced runs when we return. Lac Beauvert is a beautiful destination at the end of a little ride, and worth seeing, but if you ride for adrenaline, there are lots of options on the map that look more challenging. Still, there’s something to be said for a stunning lake surrounded by majestic mountains.

The fact that the national parks are not just allowing but actively trail building for and encouraging mountain biking is really exciting. Canada’s national parks have always had a lot to offer, and mountain biking is a great complementary addition. We didn’t encounter any hikers who seemed to take issue with the shared trails. In fact, everyone we met on the trails was friendly. I can’t wait to go back.

*By the way, I have a bit of a thing for Jasper the bear, the town’s mascot. He’s had a facelift, but he’s still a charmer.

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